Monday, October 26, 2015

5 Lessons Learned From the First Year of My Craft Business

When I opened my Etsy shop on October 25, 2014, I was really clueless as to what the next year would hold in store for me and my fledgling business. Feeling absolutely terrified about what the future might hold for me and my soaps, I added a small text file to the desktop of my laptop entitled 'To Emily, From Emily.' I wrote a few short, simple sentences that have come to guide me over and over during the past year. Every time I open the file, I take a deep breath while I read it and feel more grounded and ambitious after having absorbed it. It reads:
Your soap is awesome.
Your business is an evolving work in progress.
You are brave to put yourself out there, and your craft will go through many iterations over time.
Perfect your craft, have fun, be amazing.
Those few words have given me comfort when I've had doubts, confidence when I've felt vulnerable, and motivation when I've just wanted to throw in the towel. My little mantra is one thing that worked in my business over this past year, and I've also found plenty of things that didn't work. Upon reflection, I've come up with five lessons that I've solidly learned over the past year. I feel like a better soap maker, artist, and business owner for going through this process, and it's really impacted my personal life in a positive way as well.

1. Don't Sweat the Competition

It's easy to be intimidated by another crafter's work, whether it's soap making, jewelry, painting, or what have you. Over the past year I've found that every time I start focusing on someone else's work, my own work suffers. That's why I have chosen to focus on taking my own craft to the next level, and not worry about what others are doing. There will probably always be someone out there who I think is doing a better job than I am, and I will never be able to control that. What I can control is the quality and artistry of my own products.

(Donna Maria Coles Johnson from Indie Business Network has a series of podcasts available to non-members like me, and one specifically addresses competition. I highly recommend checking it out!)

2. Embrace Rejection

I applied to a couple of the largest local craft extravaganzas in the Seattle area this year, and was rejected by both of them. Although competition is incredibly stiff for both markets, it was a blow to my ego. After I moped for a few days, I took a good hard look at my show applications and tried to see my company and products from an outsider's perspective. I also ordered soap from other soap makers that these shows invite back year after year to find out where I was going wrong. I should have referred to #1 above!

The first thing that I found in trying out my competitors products was that mine were just as good, maybe better (it's all subjective) than my competitors. I was relieved, but not necessarily surprised. I research, test, and labor over my soap recipes, and have earned many repeat customers over this past year, but it was nice to have personal validation that my soap is just as good as the competition's. 

The second and most important thing that I learned was that I believe my barriers to the larger shows largely lie in branding, which is an area I intend to focus on in the early part of next year. With product quality on parity with the big dogs, I know that marketing, branding, and packaging my products in a more distinctive, consistent way will really increase my soap's appeal. It's difficult to recognize your own shortcomings. Not only am I too close to my business to look at it objectively all the time, but it's hard to admit that some areas of the business could use some work. I learned that rejection is a gift because it turns painful situations into meaningful growth.

3. Oh, the People You'll Meet

One thing that I didn't expect when I began my business was the amazing people I'd meet along the way. From other vendors and craftspeople to members of my community, I feel like I've met more new people in the past year than probably the past five years combined. Not only have I met people, but I've discovered a community. I have been fortunate to be able to connect with the people in my geographical community through vending at the Des Moines Waterfront Farmers Market, but I have also discovered a community of crafters, makers, and vendors.

Crafters and makers are artists and businesspeople. They create, they travel, they make deals. I've been so inspired by the business acumen of some, the networking genius of others, and the kindness and generosity of most. Through other vendors and crafters I have been introduced to many business opportunities that I wouldn't have had otherwise. 

4. The Bottom Line

A craft business is as much about accounting and record keeping as it as about crafting some days. Other days, more so. I'm fortunate to have a background in financial services and lots of exposure to small business ownership, so this part is as enjoyable as crafting soap to me. A craft business, like any other business, is not just about managing your money, but also about leveraging your time and energy. I have had to make some hard decisions with my time and money over the past year. For me, that meant passing on a huge wholesale order at razor slim profit margins in order to focus on local shows and the retail aspect of my business over the holiday season.

Managing my limited time also means that sometimes my business is on the back burner as I run my kids to and from school, take a few days off to visit my parents, or have date night with my husband. At the end of the day, the proverbial "bottom line" is important to sustaining a business, but the business won't last without a serious dose of work-life balance. I've learned how important it is to make business fit into my life, not live my life around a business.

5. For the Love of the Craft

My sales channels aside from the Etsy site include craft shows, fundraising events, and farmers markets. The first few times I had a slow day with few sales I nearly panicked. Having worked for many years in the financial services industry, I immediately started running dismal sales projections in my head. I've learned over this past year that those days always seem to even out with the days that have me grinning from ear to ear as I count out the daily sales. At first it was a big rush to make a sale, but I've come to realize that I don't just attend these venues to sell, sell, sell. I do it because I love to make soap and geek out about it with people who appreciate the artistry that goes into it. It's because I love to be a part of the festive atmosphere. It's because I love to meet other makers who are passionate about their work. It's because it makes me a little bit scared to be "out there," and that makes me grow as a person. 

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